Friday, May 6, 2022

Slow morning drive

 There’s no doubt that this Spring has been one of the latest in arriving. Here in northern Minnesota the official date of March 20 means little, and Groundhog’s Day means nothing. But this year winter really kept her grip on things. Fishing season opens in eight days and the lakes are still mostly ice covered. Shaded areas still support deep banks of snow. The grouse have just started drumming at my place last week. There are a few woodcock around and they’re looking for someplace high and dry to nest. 



This morning Gabi and I took a ride to check things out on the forest road near here. There’s nothing like driving east into the sun to notice how dirty the windshield is, but it didn’t seem to bother Gabi, always alert for activity. It was 29 degrees when I left the house, so the heater felt good. A big mug of coffee was delicious and morning public radio is usually pretty entertaining, sometimes enlightening. 



The road took us to two lakes and approaching the first it didn’t seem like much was going on. There is some open water out from the shore but the main body is covered with rotting ice. Thanks to my 10x binocular I soon spotted a multitude of waterfowl. Mallards, ringnecks, blue-winged teal, Canada geese, ospreys, eagles, and the largest flock of trumpeter swans I’ve ever seen – probably 30 in one group. 



On the way to the second lake a couple of healthy-looking deer crossed ahead and a grouse was out picking gravel from the road. In some places patches of snow still covered the road. The second lake is smaller, but deeper and showed less open water then the first.  



Yes, Spring is slow coming, but sure is welcome. 


 

Friday, April 29, 2022

Granddad's gun

 For an outdoor minded kid, our duck camp was a favorite place to be, particularly in the fall when it was gunning season. But there was more to it than that. The long narrow lane in was a good place to start teaching a youngster to drive a car -- that's when I was first allowed behind the wheel. In the summer there were fishing and swimming to be done and boat handling was learned by accident. The sandy river-bottom soil was home to a great watermelon patch, and the surrounding hardwoods were meant for exploring. Fox and raccoons to be seen; muskrats and mink and turtles and frogs along the river. A boy with a handful of traps could get some fine nature lessons. Still, those autumn flights of waterfowl remained the year’s foremost attraction.  



Dad used his old Remington Sportsman 16-gauge and knocked ducks from the air with little apparent effort. It was his gun and he knew how to use it. Being a youngster short on knowledge and experience, and unaware of what I was being taught, I assumed my shooting failures were attributed to being outgunned. So occasionally Dad would shoot with his beautiful little pump-action .410 just to show me it could be done, because in those early years I was using a .410 and not hurting the duck population much. Back in those days before non-toxic shot regulations a good man could wield that little sub-gauge effectively. Yet, as I grew older, I figured I’d pile ‘em up if only I had a 12 gauge. 

When I hit my teens I found some ways to earn a little money with various jobs and fur trapping and before long I’d saved enough to buy a used 12-gauge pump-action shotgun. I figured I was in high heaven then, while Dad stood beside me in the marsh and continued to wipe my eye with the old 16.  



I took that old Remington Sportsman out the other day just to have a look. It had been sitting, unused, since the mid 1970’s when Dad put it away for the new Browning I gave him one Christmas. And, oh, how he shot that Browning till the end of his shooting days! I decided the old Remington deserved a workout at the gun club, but first I had to do something about the ill-fitted, deteriorating recoil pad. I’ve refinished a few gunstocks and had a few used pads laying around, so I was happy to find one that looked like it would work. After I removed the old rubber pad, I found a slip of yellowed, brittle paper inside the hollow of the stock. On that paper was written my grandfather’s name, address, and the date: 7 Sept. 1940. That gun was not only my father’s, but my grandfather’s before him and the sentimental cool factor sudden raised by 100%. 



The fixed full choke barrel was the norm for waterfowl before non-toxic shot became required, but it’s not very conducive to high scores on the skeet range. I was happy to hit more than I missed and am now pondering having the choke opened for a more useable grouse and woodcock gun. I can’t imagine how much game was brought to ground with the old shotgun and I’ll never match it, but perhaps I can add a bit of my own history gunning with it. 





Friday, April 1, 2022

Spooling line tips... sort of.

 One day old Bill, a gunsmith and skeet shooting buddy, came to me and said, "Hey, you're a fly fisher, take this," and handed me a big, mostly plastic reel that he assumed was a fly reel. I didn't know exactly what kind of reel it was. but it wasn't any kind of fly reel I'd ever seen. But I took it and found a use for it. I learned later the reel is called a mooching reel used for some type of salmon fishing, I'm guessing big, deep water 'cause it'll hold nearly a half mile of 14# test line. 


I had two old broken spinning rods -- why I keep this stuff I'll never know -- but with a little cutting and epoxy they were fitted together and have made a handy tool for re-spooling lines and particularly for cleaning fly lines.  The big reel works great for that and I've been using it for years. 



So, I decided to put a new line on my oldest trout reel. I've had the new line for a couple of months, purchased along with a couple of new shirts paid with Cabela's points. I figured it was due because the old one had been spooled for a long time, years, in fact. For some reason I decided to do the job from my easy chair, close to my coffee cup, and pulled the old line off and dropped it to the floor instead of getting my tool. I was surprised that that old line was in such good condition -- no cracks or noticeable wear at all -- and I knew then I would keep it as a spare and rewind it to the empty spool the new line came on.  So, after the new line was on the fly reel, I started wrapping the old one and realized it was easier said than done. What a tangle! The spooling tool would have saved some frustration. Lesson learned. I should have known better, though seems fitting for April Fools Day.



 Incidentally, I don't typically recommend or endorse any brand name or products to anyone. There are folks better at analyzing this stuff than I am, and my advice could be interpreted as the blind leading the blind, but I have a couple of the less pricey Cabela's lines on reels and they perform and last as well, for me, as some of my lines costing twice as much. Just saying. Good fishing! 


 

Saturday, March 19, 2022

Another fly box?

 Out in the garage there are five or six fly boxes loaded with trout flies. A shelf in the basement holds a couple more trout boxes. Considering how often they get used and how long that inventory will last, well, there is just no need to tie more trout flies. Except, of course, for extended body Hexagenia flies, because the current imitations leave something to be desired.

Surrounded by bass, pike, and muskie water -- so alongside those nifty trout boxes in the garage, crowding the wooden shelf, are the big fly boxes: the bass bugs and muskie streamers. There are no slots or tacky foam in those boxes, just empty space that could hold a fine luncheon if they weren't filled with an array of colorful bucktail, spun deer hair, animal fur, and synthetic fibers all wound on substantial hooks; some you could hang your coat on. A non-fisherman, a civilian, might lift the lid and jump back afraid of what may spring out and pounce on them.

Two or three of those boxes go in the boat, the first with bass poppers and divers. Number two with the clousers and Murdich Minnows and such type streamers. Third box is piled with the big stuff -- articulated, 6/0's, bushy headed Bufords and the like -- the flies that get attached to wire bite tippet, always. 

Might be best to go lighter in your buddy's boat. The owner is captain and likely has three large boxes of their own, along with rods and tools and all the other accoutrements that go with owning a boat. If it's all bass fishing maybe try to split one box with half top-water and half sub-surface. If muskies and pike are around, you'll have to bring that box, too. There's no other way. Everyone wants to use their own flies and you'll probably change flies three or four times during the day, so several dozen should be enough.

What about those coffee cans filled with rejects: handfuls of fur and feathers that, despite good intentions, looked too ridiculous to grace a leader. Or deer hair faded from use. Chewed by fish (happily, it happens) Or flies merely replaced to make room for something new. The idea is to strip the material off and re-use the hooks. Any day, now.

But still tying more? Of course. There are new materials to try. Techniques to experiment with: can a dubbing loop really be loaded with that long flash and fake fur?  What's with those wire spines, and heck yeah, you can make 'em yourself!




Lakes and rivers are still frozen here but fly fishing is on my mind. So I'm tying some more flies. There's an empty coffee can around here somewhere. 


Monday, February 7, 2022

Bird Dogs... love 'em


Even though we’re in deep winter now and it’s time for snowshoes and skis, firewood cutting and fly tying on these days of below zero temps; I can’t help but think about the past hunting season, toting my scattergun behind Gabi for some grouse gunning.

 

I followed her across the beaver dam, that little setter of mine, and heard her break left and disappear into the thick along the edge of the flooded alder swamp. Once I gained some high ground I stopped and listened, but all was quiet. I was going to have to ease back along the edge of that tangle and try to find her, for I figured she was on point. It took long minutes of ducking, tripping, and pushing through brush and balsam while gazing ahead for Gabi's white coat or a glimpse of her orange collar. Tough going, for sure, and I wondered if I was the first man to ever stumble ever lower toward the impassable alder swamp -- for there is no reason for man to ever want to. Unless to find a pointing bird dog. 

And there she was! I looked hard to make sure it was Gabi and not some bit of downed birch bark or the reflection off some water that coursed through and pooled around the trunks and shoots of alders and willows. Yes, it was her all right, standing firm on the last bit of high ground before getting her feet wet. And thankfully looking towards me from fifty yards out. Sunlight filtered down through the trees and lit the forest floor in a beautiful scene. We had the grouse pinned between us and though the bird might have fled with a low flush behind screening cover, it chose altitude for escape. Another step sent the bird pumping for the treetops and arced to level out for distance but caught a charge of 7 1/2's from my 20 gauge. If only they were all like that. 

Gabi rushed to the fallen grouse, picked it up and looked at me, carried it a couple of feet and dropped it. There she stood as if to say, "here's your bird, come and get it so we can get moving!" Finding birds is one thing -- retrieving? Not for her. Gabi swore off retrieving long ago. It's not that she doesn't try -- but it's those dry loose feathers in her mouth... At home she'll fetch all manner of plastic and canvas dummies, Dokken's Dead Fowl dummies, and even wing-wrapped retrieving bucks. Of course, I've tried frozen pigeons with a bit of success but when it comes to freshly killed birds, nope. Nor does she point dead -- she races to the downed bird, lifts it to show me, then spits it out and shakes the feathers from her mouth.  Gabi once pounced on a wing-tipped woodcock and held the live bird to ground with her front paws so I could come and get it. The woodcock never touched her lips and she was pleased with herself. 

One evening while Gabi was curled on my lap, I tried to explain the various methods of retriever training. She looked at me like I must be kidding. The subject was never brought up again. 

A setter's primary job is finding birds and I can't fault her in that department. Since puppyhood she's been a bird-finder, and as she developed, I was impressed by her abilities. Though sometimes I wondered about how she handled them. Gabi had some quirky ways about working scent and there were times when I heard grouse taking wing that I believed some of my previous dogs would have nailed. You can only judge what you can see, and she was right often enough to make me proud. But there were times when I heard her bell stop and a grouse flush, or was it a grouse flush and her bell stop? I'd push in to find her standing, looking over her shoulder at me and wagging her tail. Yeah, there was a grouse here, a nice one, too! You should have seen it! 

This past season was different, however. And it took me awhile to realize it. We were at the tailgate getting ready to hit the cover and it occurred to me I was opening another box of shells when I looked at her and said, "Gabi, you're a heck of a bird dog!" She'd been finding and handling birds all season and I'd been enjoying the fine shooting she provided. Running grouse, tight woodcock, singles, multiples -- it was great, and one of the best seasons I've had for some time. Perhaps it was a good year for grouse -- we seemed to find them everywhere. Or maybe Gabi just figured it all out.  



Compared to some exceptional bird dogs I've shot over; I've doubted Gabi could match them and said so. I think it's time to eat those words. 


 


 

Monday, November 1, 2021

October, where'd it go?


A year ago there was snow on the ground here and there will be again, soon, if the snow buntings I spotted on Friday are any indication. Those pretty little white and grey birds don't stick around long, apparently migrating ahead of the snow storm that's soon to follow. I've never known them to be wrong and snow will start falling within two weeks of first sighting them. And it's often less than two weeks.

Until then, however, the Northwoods autumn has been a fine one to enjoy. Tamarack trees have turned their winter golden/orange and it seems they soak in sunlight on bright days and emit a glow on cloudy days. Most of the leaves on the aspen and maples have dropped to a carpet of subdued color on the ground, and it's become cool enough to wear my favorite hunting coat while following Gabby in search of grouse. There's been a skim of ice on the water-filled ditch across Mattson's swamp each morning I pass on our way to the grouse coverts.


I've been behind bird dogs every fall for something like 40 years. Still, the sight of a white English setter locked up like a statue among that umber-colored forest floor thrills me to this day. Pushing through the thick stuff to flush the bird is seldom easy and the explosive flush of ruffed grouse doesn't always offer the chance for a shot, but when it works and your aim is true the bird takes the shot, pauses in mid-air as if waiting for the echo of the gun to subside, crumples and falls. The result is a feeling close to elation. I hope that never changes.




There was a day when I hunted from light to dawn. I had a number of dogs and rotated them throughout the day. If the season was open I was hunting, rain or shine, with an exuberance only youth can provide. I made trips for western grouse, partridge, and pheasants. I shot, and missed, many birds. When I look through the early pages of my gunning journal the numbers sometimes surprise me. Some folks may have thought I'd have done better given the time I spent in the woods, while others may have declared me a greedy game hog. I'm not much of a score keeper and stopped recording the count long ago. Instead I keep track of incidents --  like twice last week when I took a shot at a fast departing grouse then opened my gun to reload when two more birds wasted no time climbing for altitude and leaving while I stood flat-footed with one hand in my pocket and the open gun in the crook of my arm. Or when I drove an hour to a favorite cover to find I only had four shells along. Once we surprised a pair of trumpeter swans on a beaver pond and their flapping wings and tumultuous voices resounded over the lowland as they clamored for the sky. Or when Gabby did a fine job of nailing a running bird after several re-locations and the comfortable heft of that grouse in my game pocket.




There are many memories to recall, many dogs past and present, many shots taken and the friends that were there. Many autumn sunrises and many evenings with my hand wrapped around a glass and a sleeping setter at my side. Almost too many memories to recall. Almost.




Thursday, September 30, 2021

Autumn Brook Trout

 

Some folks live in parts of the country where fishing season never closes. I like the idea of fishing year-round, but I also understand the reason that stream trout season ends the last day of September. Here in northern MN the season closes to protect the Fall spawning brook trout. That makes sense because, well, you can never have too many brook trout. 

For bird hunters like myself, it's hard to think of anything but grouse and woodcock now. Hunting season is open and my eager setter, Gabby, knows it and is ready to hit it. The foliage is still heavy, but turning to the reds, yellows, and oranges of Autumn and after all these years the beauty of it still strikes me. Although there have been some chilling mornings, lately the daytime temps have reached 80 degrees making it too hot for hunting. Hiking through the cover following a bird dog is warming enough -- add that climbing temperature and bright sun and each hunt finds me with a sweat-soaked shirt and exhausted dog. But if it's too hot to hunt, doesn't it make sense to go fishing? 


  


I hung around home for most of the day after a short early hunt with Gabby, then loaded my gear and a cold one on the ATV and headed for the stream. I had my favorite trout rod along and looked forward to an enjoyable evening. The stream looked clear and inviting and I knew these brookies will often rise to a fly even when there's no discernable activity on the water.  Relying on past experience, I tied a well-used #14 Madam X to my 6x leader and cast over a submerged brush pile, the remnants of an old beaver feed bed. A strike came immediately and I jerked and missed, but happy for the quick action. 



  


After a summer of casting mostly 8,9, and 10 weight rods, my little 3oz. 7'9" rod felt like air in my hand and I had look occasionally to see if I still had a hold of it. I missed a couple of strikes before hooking up to a beauty of a little brookie in full spawning color.  I admired the fish with a photo and slipped it back into the water. For variety I changed to a #18 caddis and landed three more of those pretty trout.  Catching those wild, backwoods brook trout on dry flies is about as good as it gets, but time passes quickly when you're fishing and when I noticed the sky had turned from blue to purple and looked at the dark forest surrounding me, I knew it was time to head home. 



Friday, September 24, 2021

Rain Day


 Sometimes you just have to enjoy a rainy day from indoors. Well, maybe not all day – but after a short jaunt in 50-degree, wet woods, it felt darn good to shed dripping raingear and heavy boots. But the rain is welcome after the record-breaking drought we went through this summer. While we weren't experiencing the huge wildfires like they are out west, here in northern MN we had more than usual. In May a wildfire burned woods just west of us and when it blew to within a quarter mile we were advised to evacuate. Well, we did pack up a few things but between the Forest Service and the local volunteer fire department the burn never reached our property. Nor did we ever leave, but instead sat outside and watched an impressive air show of fire-fighting planes and helicopters. The fire was pretty much knocked down the first day, but ground crews found hot spots two more days and the helicopters returned to dip water out of a pond across the road and quench what was left.  






Now that we're getting some rain it's easy to forget how hot and dry it was and the bigger fires north and east of us are under control. It’s time to enjoy the changing Autumn leaves and look forward to the Fall season. The beavers have finally backed up some water on the creek near here, but the rivers and lakes are still low and we'll need some good rainfall and winter snow to get them where we'd like to see them.  

Grouse hunting season has been open for almost a week and Gabby and I have been enjoying it. I can't say we've been all that productive, but it's still early and the best of the season is yet to come. There's some good Fall fishing ahead as well, but for the rest of today I believe we'll stay warm and dry inside. Happy Autumn!